Bring on the Cancon: A review of cultural policy is long overdue

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Many thanks to culture ("heritage") minister Mélanie Joly for announcing a review of cultural policy. These reviews sometimes feel like the most ancient form of Canadian culture. This one is overdue. Why?

Because there's just so much of the stuff. Gone are the days when a Canadian cultural hero like Mavor Moore, who helped found most of our arts institutions, was asked by relatives, well into his 50s and 60s, when he planned to get a serious job. If you're young and not planning on going into a profession, you're likely picturing a future in some arts/culture area. Not just because it sounds like more fun than a life-draining factory job but because those jobs -- as Trump and Sanders say -- often no longer exist. So it's the task of all sentient public officials to get in and bolster this crucial sector.

Take Drake. He wouldn't exist as we know him without public investment in Canadian culture or Canadian content rules. He spent nine years in a role on the fourth version of Degrassi, which existed because of CBC and its mandate. That's not a passing gig, it's formative. Do you think there's any link between a series named for a street in the 6 and Drake's echoing invocations of Toronto?

No, I'm not saying Cancon made Drake. There's talent, drivenness, luck. But we tend to make an assumption of inevitability when it comes to artistic genius. What would Western music be without Mozart? Unthinkable. Therefore Mozart had to be. But his father happened to be a composer and music teacher. What if he'd been a potato farmer with no clavier in the drawing room? Would there be a void? Would another titan have taken music in another direction, perhaps plucked off the estate by a talent-scouting landowner? These kinds of counterfactuals get asked more often in history (What if Hitler won?) than art. But it's a case for encouraging all the talent that might be out there.

Canadian content rules have always been a little embarrassing, as if we weren't good enough without, ugh, quotas. But Cancon was really less about the Can than the con. France and the U.K. had public arts support too, though not our kinds of content rules since they had their own language and no neighbouring, culture-vomiting behemoth that would've filled every cultural space otherwise. "The state or the States" was the slogan of early CBC supporters and it does sound defensive. But Canadian content was simply the Canadian term for public support of culture. Now that culture is a driver of the economy and a source of hope for young jobseekers, we need Cancon more than ever.

Here's another area for Joly's revue. The Internet is rife with cultural content. There's music, especially on YouTube, along with lots of writing and performance. But it's all notoriously un or undercompensated. There's gobs of money made on the Internet, largely through ads but -- with mythic exceptions like Justin Bieber -- it mostly goes to feudal overlords, such as Google and Facebook. The serfs keep cranking it out for love or eventually quit. Bands that lived from royalties have had to go back on the road, making normal family life impossible. The Internet is as much a domain of the one per cent (i.e., .001) as Wall St. -- perhaps more, since many serfs seem quite happy with their exploitation.

What's the solution? I suggest the first witness (or act) that Joly calls should be U.S. virtual reality pioneer, musician and author, Jaron Lanier. He's proposed payment per byte on the Internet. Everybody who gets watched gets paid. It's brilliant. It'd run like electricity. You pay an initial connection charge, then only for what you use. It would require a complex infrastructure to monitor and distribute payment. That could be public or private but highly regulated. All on its own this could put government back in motion after the Harper years. It would mean more regulation than we now have -- but it would respond to the culturalization of the economy and the feudalization of that culture.

I haven't mentioned the realms of education and journalism, which any idiot can see belong to culture. It's true these measures would mightily tick off the editorial writers at the Globe, who see Cancon rules as a "relic" and shudder at "indirect subsidy of cultural industries." So that would be another plus.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Anton Mak/flickr

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